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Seattle’s war on cars is a war on drivers, and it wastes taxpayers' money, hurts the regional economy and makes traffic congestion worse.
For many years, Seattle officials have tried to force people out of their cars by replacing auto lanes with bus and bicycle-only restrictions, increasing parking taxes and fees, or forcing car-free weekends in certain neighborhoods.
Motorists are largely unorganized, with very few opportunities to speak collectively, and a large number of daily drivers do not live within the city. Seattle’s leaders attack drivers with strategies applied in small doses, so as to appease their liberal base without causing business organizations or port officials to boil over.
The rest of us have generally accepted Seattle’s anti-driver policies as the cost of doing business in a big city, and used them as punch lines at parties or whenever relatives from out-of-town would visit.
Recently, however, Seattle’s discontent with people who drive is reaching beyond the central city and influencing regional decisions that further reduce mobility and harm the economy.
The plan to replace the 520 floating bridge, though needed, does not add any new general-purpose lanes to the already-congested configuration that exists today. Seattle Mayor McGinn even suggests restricting the two new HOV lanes to transit only, which would add an additional 20,000 cars per day to the mainlines and make traffic congestion even worse.
The leading Viaduct replacement plan actually reduces the number of existing automobile lanes from six to four, which guarantees more traffic snarls in Seattle and on Interstate-5. Mayor Mike McGinn opposes even four lanes and suggests not replacing the highway at all, which again would worsen traffic congestion.
Sound Transit officials plan to remove the reversible center lanes across the I-90 bridge, which a state study shows will increase traffic congestion.
This means the supply of general lanes that connect to the largest employment hub in the state will decrease in the next twenty years, despite regional population increases of more than one million new residents.
In a recent study released by a national company that uses travel and speed data from its GPS customers to measure traffic, Seattle ranks number one as the most congested city in America.
This is remarkable when you consider that Seattle is only the twenty-third largest U.S. city in terms of population.
I once asked the director of the Seattle Department of Transportation his reaction to his city’s ranking as the most congested in America, and what he plans to do about it.
His response was not about fixing choke points, the lack of lane continuity on I-5 or installing intelligent transportation systems. He didn’t say anything about infrastructure improvements, deficient bridges or signal timing. He ignored freight mobility, bottlenecks on I-90, the Port of Seattle and the growing need for more freight rail capacity.
Instead, his answer was simple: More public transit.
Public transportation is important and serves a vital role in highly dense urban areas like downtown Seattle. But transit is expensive and it does not work for the majority of people.
The Puget Sound Regional Council just released its long-range plan, Transportation 2040. The plan focuses heavily on expanding mass transit and would spend nearly $200 billion over the next 30 years. Yet the share of people actually using mass transit would only rise from three percent today, to five percent in 2040. Light rail, which consumes the bulk of the money, would only carry one percent of all people.
Other studies now show traffic congestion in the Puget Sound region will double, reaching the levels of present day Los Angeles, within twenty years.
This should concern every working mom and dad who worries about being home in time for dinner, for Boeing executives who need to move airplane parts around the region, and for the freight industry that needs to get goods to market.
The economic engine that runs not only the Puget Sound region but also the entire state, is Seattle, and what happens in that urban center affects us all. Officials seem more worried about bicycles, street cars and not filling potholes than dealing with the actual needs of a super-regional city. From the closure of the South Park Bridge to higher traffic congestion to crumbling streets, Seattle’s war on drivers is unpopular, creates risk and harms the economy.
Michael Ennis is Director of WPC's Center for Transportation. Before joining Washington Policy Center, he worked for the Washington State Senate and House of Representatives and was formerly a staff assistant for U.S. Senator Slade Gorton.